Craig Breen leads the Circuit of Ireland at the end of day one on his return to the FIA European Rally Championship, chasing back-to-back victories on the event.
Using an R5 version of the Michelin-equipped Citroën DS3 he's campaigning in the World Rally Championship this year following his successful three-year stint in the ERC, Breen moved into the rally lead on SS3 as he set a stunning time on the longest stage, the 31.21 kilometres of The Glens. Grinning from ear to ear at the stop line, Breen described the stage as 'the best bit of tarmac in the world'.
Breen's pace-setting time on SS3 coincided with the demise of early leader Elfyn Evans. Running first on the road for his ERC debut after topping yesterday's qualifying stage, Evans seemed to be continuing his winning start to 2016 by leading the opening two stages before being forced out by an overheating engine on his Ford Fiesta R5.
Prior to SS3, meanwhile, Breen had only 0.9secs in hand over his 2015 ERC rival Kajetan Kajetanowicz, following a strong start from the defending champion, but, in his element on The Glens, the Irishman was able to open a 25secs lead thanks also to an inspired tyre choice, even though Kajetanowicz was the next quickest driver through the stage. Breen won the two tests that followed in the afternoon to stretch his margin to 36.1secs, only to drop 11secs relative to his rival with a spin on the evening street stage in Newtownards.
Alastair Fisher has always had the speed to run with the best on his home event, but had only managed a combined six stages on his previous two starts. This time he's matched that distance with no dramas and is just 2.5secs behind fellow Fiesta R5 driver Kajetanowicz after winning SS6.
Fredrik Åhlin began the rally in cautious mood on his first start on asphalt since 2012, but he quickly got up to speed and climbed from tenth to fourth on SS3, which he compared to Finland's famous Ouninpohja stage. He was later second-quickest to Breen on SS5 despite complaining of a lack of confidence in his tyre choice, but lost half a minute and three positions when he hit a kerb in Newtownards, damaging the right-rear corner of his car.
Driving an older Super 2000-rules Škoda Fabia, McCormack is now up to fourth overall ahead of ERC regular Jaromír Tarabus, who has enjoyed the first day of his 2016 campaign, sitting fifth after a trio of top-five stage times in the afternoon. His fellow Fabia R5 driver David Bogie also raised his speed in the afternoon as he moves on from the free practice spin that forced him out of the qualifying stage, and the former British champion sits eighth between brothers Josh and Sam Moffett. Local man Jonny Greer is tenth in front of Tom Cave and Joseph McGonigle.
Robert Consani's bad fortune failed to improve after his car issues in the Canary Islands and damage sustained in the qualifying stage, and the Frenchman, co-driven by reigning WRC3 champion Renaud Jamoul for the first time, was forced out by a broken driveshaft on his Citroën after the first stage. Fellow DS3 R5 driver Keith Cronin's chances also ended on SS1 when an off led to an overheating engine. Federico Della Casa and Neil Simpson were casualties of the very challenging SS3, going off the road at similar points in the stage.
Wojciech Chuchała brought his commanding ERC2 form from the Canary Islands onto the Circuit of Ireland, leading the category from the start for the Subaru Poland Rally Team. Looking to compete with the R5 and Super 2000 cars once more, Chuchała rued his tyre choice for the morning loop having banked on rain, but the weather turned in his favour later on and he was fourth quickest on SS6. Italy's Giacomo Scattolon is 3min12.2secs adrift from Chuchała, but is on for good ERC2 points for second place.
The battle in ERC Junior was close on the first day of the season for the class for drivers aged under 27 at the start of the year, with the series running on Pirelli tyres for the first time.
Łukasz Pieniążek led an Opel top-four lockout on the first stage before Marijan Griebel moved ahead, and the German driver fought off an ongoing mechanical issue to lead the class through the rest of the day. Peugeot 208 R2 driver Nikolay Gryazin emerged as Griebel's closest rival with a fastest time on the demanding 31-kilometre SS3 and the 18-year old was just 5.7secs behind prior to SS6. A puncture there, however, dropped him to third behind Pieniążek, who is 19.3secs in arrears of Griebel.
With Julius Tannert dropping out on SS5, Chris Ingram is fourth and enjoying his new Adam R2 but still finding the car's limit, on his first outing with new co-driver Katrin Becker. While Marco Cid and Dominik Brož are still in contention in fifth and sixth, Steve Røkland crashed out of the rally on SS3 in a difficult morning for the qualifying stage pace-setter, who lost a wheel after the nuts broke, leading to a high-speed roll.
It was a tough day for most of the ERC3 contenders who aren't also competing for ERC Junior honours, but Renato Pita is fifth in ERC3 in his first event after switching to the Ford Fiesta R2. László Német lost time on the long SS3, stopping several times because of an electrical issue, but sits 7.2secs seconds ahead of his fellow Hungarian Peugeot 208 R2 driver Szabolcs Várkonyi. Német's team-mate Aleks Humar suffered a technical failure before the first stage – heart-breaking for the Slovenian and his Oktan Sport crew who had repaired his 208 R2 following a roll on the qualifying stage.